Bright Lights, Big Dreams
Inside the world of reality TV dating shows – by Alec Ash
When rock didn’t make him famous, Lucifer tried TV. Rustic had burnt bright but short. D-22 club had closed in early 2012, and the scene had moved on. But talent and dating shows were booming, and here he looked for a new adoring audience.
The first big hit was If You Are The One, an equivalent of the British show Take Me Out. In the show a single male suitor tries to impress a line-up of twenty-four women standing behind podiums, who accept or reject him by keeping their light on or switching it off. If more than one light is left on at the end, he gets to choose. It was a refreshing change from the usual fare on Chinese TV, soppy Qing-dynasty soaps and variety-show style galas. The ratings soared and every channel wanted a piece of the pie, producing copies of copycats.
The media wrung their hands about materialistic dating attitudes in If You Are The One, and took them as a sign of the times. In 2010 attention focused on Ma Nuo, a twenty-three-year-old woman who, when asked by a young graduate if she would go for a bike ride with him, retorted, ‘I would rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.’ Two months later a rich second-generation contestant called Liu Yunchao boasted of having six million yuan in the bank – the figure tallied up on the big screen while the audience oohed and aahed. Netizens found bitter truth in the implication that a guy’s chances were linked to the size of his wallet.
The ever-prudish SAPPRFT – the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television – didn’t approve either. In the wake of the Ma Nuo controversy they issued a notice that ‘rich young people’ and the ‘morally suspect’ should not be allowed on dating shows. Instead contenders found more indirect ways to show o wealth, ensuring good airtime for their flats and cars in the self-introductory videos that came between question rounds. Eventually SAPPRFT restricted the number of dating shows and banned them from prime time, arguing that they were damaging to the spiritual health of the nation. But by then they were everywhere.
Be Mr Right was one of the provincial copycats, made by a smaller channel called South-East TV and recorded in a shared Beijing studio. The set-up was the same as If You Are The One, with a gallery of single women judging nervous suitors by turns. It didn’t have the biggest budget but made up for it in post-production: boingy noises and words flashing up on screen in a bulbous font with multiple exclamation marks. Lucifer’s friend B Ge, ‘Brother B’, had introduced Lucifer to the show’s producer, having been on it himself.
Brother B was a twig-skinny Beijinger whose shtick was playing the loser in comic videos online. A self-consciously ‘dumbass youth’, erbiqingnian, the term also gave him his stage name: to call anything er, second rate or B, was to mock it, and bi was also a swear word. His speciality was performing stupid antics in public places – blowing up condoms in supermarket aisles, doing chin-ups in the subway – while shouting into the camera. His goofball persona won him over a hundred thousand fans on Weibo and a sponsorship deal with a video site, income he supplemented as a comedy wedding host.
Lucifer was taking supplementary music classes at China Minorities University, where he learnt to play the piano, but was living in an eastern suburb of Beijing so far out it was part of Hebei, his home province. Called Yanjiao or ‘swallow district’ for the capital’s ancient name, Yanjing, it took almost two hours by bus to travel the thirty-five kilometres into the centre of Beijing. But housing was cheap and plentiful and the commute was shared with tens of thousands of other young Chinese priced out by rents in the city. Lucifer lived hand to mouth, relying on an allowance from his parents – a classic ‘bite the old tribe’. The irony was not lost on him that after dreaming so long of making it to Beijing, he was technically back in Hebei.
He approached Be Mr Right with the same spirit of opportunism in which the show itself had been conceived. He wasn’t in it to find a date, but wanted the exposure of TV to replicate Brother B’s viral fame. Even if he made a fool of himself, that was still a kind of fame. He overslept on the February morning his segment was due to shoot, and tumbled into a taxi driven by an acquaintance who took him to the studio o meter (friends in low places). Once there he was rushed through make-up and given a briefing by the producer, who prepped him for how the skit would go and what was expected of him, even feeding him lines. Lucifer’s fifteen minutes of fame beckoned.
On stage, a domed wormhole of blue and yellow lights started to flash. Above it an LCD screen blazed the show’s title in pink cursive characters – Be Mr Right: Challenge of the Happy 100 – next to the provocative curves of a cartoon sex bomb. Lucifer burst onto set through the tunnel in a stripy jacket, black polo neck and his favourite red trousers, with an acoustic guitar slung around his shoulder. He grinned and waved at the live audience, who applauded dutifully.
The host, Zhao Yi’ou, was a thickset middle-aged man with a cigarette-stained voice. A panel of two commentators sat behind a raised desk to one side: former singer Dong Lu, and resident ‘psychology expert’ Wang Jianyi, although she o ered no credentials. In front of them all, staggered on rising steps, thirty young women with numbered badges perched on high stools, long legs artfully crossed. They were a parade of high heels, higher hems, fake eyelashes and straps galore, more colourful than a set of drawing crayons. The first question Zhao had asked them was ‘Who here likes shopping?’ Every hand went up.
Lucifer introduced himself. ‘I’m called Li Yan, I’m studying at Central Minorities University, and I have my own rock ’n’ roll band. I’m the lead singer. Thank you.’
‘Eh, a rock ’n’ roll band?’ prompted the host. ‘Why don’t you play a song for us then?’
‘Now?’ Lucifer asked, feigning surprise. What good luck he had his guitar with him. He swung the instrument down and with fast, cheery chords launched into one of his own songs, ‘I Love You Girl’. As he sang he climbed the steps among the ladies, to cheers from the audience.
‘I lost my pizza in the backpackers,’ he sang, a reference to a youth hostel in England where Rustic had ordered a pizza only to find other guests had eaten it. ‘Can you find it?’
He stopped next to number 4, a knockout in cut-offs and a tank top, and dipped his guitar low to get close and personal. She pulled back, bringing her hands up to protect her space before laughing awkwardly at herself.
‘I lost myself on the highway,’ he moved on to his next target, ‘don’t know where to go. Can you help me?’ Everyone was clapping along by the chorus. ‘I love you giiirl. You’re in the miracles. I want to be your boy when you’re blue, when you’re sad and blue.’
‘Very hot!’ the host complimented, a ectedly saying the word in English. ‘That number 4 you sang to,’ he joked, ‘there’s two ways you could describe that moment: one is interacting, another is harassing.’ The audience laughed. ‘Number 4, which did you feel it was?’
‘I think he’s very passionate,’ number 4 blushed. ‘I didn’t know he would get so close. But his eyes are very attractive, I got an electric shock from them.’
Lucifer flushed red and couldn’t stop grinning. Next the host set him up to boast about Global Battle of the Bands, Rustic’s victory and the prize money. Then his introductory video came up on the big screen, in which he talked about his romantic troubles. ‘I’ve dated Chinese girls,’ he said, ‘but their material expectations were too high. I really hate materialistic girls. But all the girls around me are like that. What can I do?’
The women had a chance to react, and number 17 seized the chance. ‘You’re generalising, you’re being self-centred,’ she said. ‘It’s not that all Chinese girls are materialistic, it’s that you only look at the materialistic girls. On the subway, you’re looking at the pretty girls batting their eyelashes, but you don’t see the ones reading books.’
‘I’ve been heartbroken a couple of times,’ Lucifer went on, ignoring her. ‘Now I have a di erent idea about love. I want to be a gold-digger.’
The audience gasped, the ladies sniggered. The phrase he had used, dao chamen, literally meant for a groom to move in with the bride’s family after marriage, flipping tradition on its head. Now it meant any guy marrying for money. ‘That doesn’t mean I’m not willing to struggle,’ Lucifer explained, ‘I just want to find a way for me to get closer to success more easily. So I want to find a rich girl, who can buy a flat in Beijing for us.’
‘She pays ninety-nine per cent, you pay one per cent?’ Zhao Yi’ou asked.
‘She can pay ninety-five per cent.’
Number 23 had her hand up. ‘You say mainland girls are materialistic,’ she said. ‘I think you’re more materialistic than we are. I think a real man wouldn’t say that.’
‘If girls can be materialistic,’ Lucifer retorted, ‘why can’t I be materialistic too? Humanity is equal after all, men and women should be equal. When we find our other half, we might face lots of di culties we hadn’t considered before. So if we make sure those hardships at the beginning aren’t so many, then we can overcome the new ones together.’
‘Young fellow, let me ask you something,’ cut in Wang Jianyi, the psychology expert, conservative in an all-pink outfit with scarf and bobcut. ‘I wonder, do you have any requirements about age?’ The audience gu awed. ‘If a woman can provide for you, she might be of a certain age already. Or if she’s a young lady it’s probably her dad’s money, and what’s that got to do with you?’
‘Teacher,’ replied Lucifer, ‘any age is OK.’
The host moved on to the next segment of the show, in which Lucifer chose six women from the line-up and they all answered multiple-choice questions about dating. If Lucifer’s answers matched either theirs or the most popular ‘female choice’ according to a pre-show survey, he would win a cash prize.
The first question popped up on the screen: ‘Your boyfriend is always speaking his home dialect with his family. What do you do?’ Options ranged from ‘Ask him not to’ to ‘So I can’t understand him, no big deal’. Lucifer and his ladies scratched at touch screens, and their answers were revealed at the same time. All six women chose C: ‘Secretly study the dialect yourself.’ Lucifer chose E: ‘A tooth for a tooth – start talking in your own dialect or a foreign language.’ The girls were not impressed.
The second question rang a bell: ‘In what conditions can a woman allow a man to be a gold-digger?’ Lucifer plumped for A: ‘If he’s a good catch but comes from a poor family.’ Three of the hopefuls had chosen the same answer, but it was far and away the least popular choice in the survey data, with only two per cent support.
Lucifer justified his choice. ‘I think a sensible woman like that,’ he said, ‘will be able to find a great guy. My goal isn’t an apartment and it isn’t a car. It’s to have good economic conditions and less trouble, so I can focus on my music and follow my dream.’
‘Standing on a giant’s shoulders –’ the host prompted.
‘– to fly higher, to go further,’ Lucifer completed the cliché. ‘Without money for good foundations, I can’t build a skyscraper,’ he continued excitedly. ‘Let me tell you – I want to be a superstar, an international superstar.’
Number 17, who had challenged him earlier, piped up. ‘Making music in a city or in a village,’ she said, ‘what’s the di erence? So long as you’re talented you should be able to achieve anything if you work hard.’
Dong Lu, the other guest expert, answered for Lucifer. ‘Do you know what the most important thing in music is? Money. Whether you’re in a city or in a village, the place doesn’t matter but the equipment does. Equipment is a musician’s wok for cooking. Can you use a block of wood to fry eggs?’
‘I believe if I’m a good chef,’ number 17 shot back, ‘someone will give me the wok, to let me show o my skills.’
‘He wants to show he’s a good chef too!’ Dong Lu exclaimed. ‘He just needs to find a good wok.’
‘A wok,’ Zhao Yi’ou summed up, ‘that loves him.’
Bringing things to a close, he explained that Lucifer had won 900 yuan but faced a final choice. He could take the money and run, or he could ask one of the three women who had matched his answer to go out with him. If she said yes, they would share the cash on a date. If she turned him down he would leave empty handed.
Among the three prospectives was number 4, the beauty whom Lucifer had first serenaded. He asked her, and she accepted. Draping an arm over her shoulder like a conquering hero, Lucifer walked out through the flashing neon vortex and back into the cabled mundanity of the TV studio, with no bright lights and no one watching.
On the way to the exit, number 4 told him she already had boyfriend and was just doing this for fun. They never did meet for a date, but added each other on social media. When he flicked through her profile photos he saw her boyfriend had a Mercedes and wore expensive clothes. Lucifer might have won on reality TV, but in reality he could never compete.
This is an extract from Alec Ash's new nonfiction book Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China, published by Picador in June and available at the Beijing Bookworm